Herewith, some thoughts on writing techniques of Bernard Cornwell following reading 1356.
This is a case of me making some fairly random observations that are important to me as a writer of historical fiction. If you are not a writer, then you might find them a bit uninteresting. If the thoughts are relevant to you, then you might also find them a bit obvious – “Well of course he does that, doesn’t he!”
- He uses an historical event (Battle of Poitiers) as a plot device – not as a backdrop – it only appears late on in the book – for the main story – in this case the pursuit for the fabled sword La Malice. In effect 1356 is a secret history.
- He introduces interesting nuggets of historical detail to dazzle the reader – steel was made by combining bones when smelting iron apparently? The bones of virgins make for the best steel. I never knew that, I have no idea if its true, but it sounds good.
- Minor characters are drawn vividly, but not that deeply. Prince Edward is a gambling, jolly prince who is cocky, but in a nice way; Sculley is basically a battle crazed scott, Father Merchant is coldly evil – it’s easy for the reader to picture these people. Major characters have more depth of back story and motivation.
- Interesting mix of viewpoint characters – Thomas of course, the main character, but King Jean, Prince Edward and several others are used as viewpoint characters – so many in fact that it almost seems like an omniscient POV.
- Some viewpoint characters seem to almost drop out of the story – what’s the point of Brother Michael – he only seems to be relevant early in the book and then he’s a hanger-on. (I still have a bit left to read, so who knows, perhaps he will make a come back?)
- The action scenes are where the writing is at its strongest. There are some attempts at humour, which feel a bit weird to me and don’t come off.
- The publisher needs to think about using a copy editor more thoroughly – in the space of a few pages at one point the same information was communicated several times. And it seems to be a running joke that no-one knows how to find the city of Bourges. Poor old Bourges! Not sure if this was intentional or again the result of lack of editing. The obsession with finding Bourges seemed a bit odd to me.
So that’s it – just some of my thoughts. 1356 like all of Bernard Cornwell’s books is good fun for the reader, but also provides some good pointers for writers. There’s the whole character arc, plotting question as well – I’m sure it does that well, but I hvaen’t had a chance to study how that works, but my main takeaways were the points about historical detail and making minor characters vivid.